Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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  Science Fact-ion by Randall Hayes
November 2016

Poli-Hedrons, or, Political Science is an Oxymoron

With Election Day still fresh (or perhaps festering) in everyone's memory, it seems like a good time to talk about politics. Classically, authors have used their stories as a form of rhetorical argument, more in the tradition of philosophy than science or engineering. The outcome of the story is determined by the author's personal prejudices. Don't worry—I’m not here this month to argue for HG Well's socialism, or Robert Heinlein's version of libertarianism, or Cory Doctorow's post-scarcity voluntarism, or any other specific ideology. Instead I want to address the process. I spent the last couple of weeks working at the polls, helping people cast their ballots, in a process that raises serious questions for me as an independent voter and as a scientist. Is this really the best way to run a country?

For instance, did you know that voting is mandatory in Australia? There are various arguments from analogy pointing out what might happen in the US based on our similarities and differences to the Land Down Under, but no one has tested it in the US since before there was a US, in 1777! Argument on this topic has no point other than selling papers. We have no relevant data. So why not do an experiment, by having some randomly chosen counties in each state pilot it, as the city of Greensboro is currently piloting participatory budgeting?

Well, because politics has winners and losers, of course, and no one wants to be a loser. That's why pilot programs are rarely real experiments; they have foregone conclusions. Here's one place where SF comes in. Stories can help people to imagine outcomes that go beyond simple win/lose, good/bad scenarios. Openly fictional stories also provide a little bit of psychological distance that allows people to play with outcomes rather than reflexively freaking out about them. This is why I incorporate SF into my teaching. Biology is full of controversial topics, from evolution to race to abortion, about which many members of the public have already made up their minds for reasons of cultural identity. Fiction allows for a different way to approach those topics.

Where to start? Where are the current political experiments whose data could be extrapolated into excellent stories?

Participatory Budgeting

This particular method of direct democracy started in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre (just rolls off the tongue, doesn't it?) but has now spread to at least 1,500 institutions around the world. Greensboro just finished its first pilot year, and will spend $250,000 on 30 infrastructure projects around the city, projects proposed and voted on by citizen volunteers, through a process that is independent of the elected City Council and the appointed City Manager. Of course, proponents of the process, like the non-profit that is running Greensboro's program, present a one-sided view, where a good story would include lots of interesting behind-the-scenes conflict.

Basic income

This idea has equally enthusiastic boosters and detractors (see the references below), both of which are on display in this Freakonomics podcast. Limited trials have provided limited data so far, and those data are disputed for political reasons. There's a lot of room for experiment and creativity on this one, perhaps by combining it with local currencies, which were in wide use during the Great Depression, and which have long track records in certain communities, such as the Ithaca Hour.

The Evolution Institute

In a previous column, I mentioned Peter Turchin's simulation work on using evolutionary game theory to model historical events. This same think tank has multiple projects putting evolutionary biology into practice: redesigning the learning environment at New York State's Regents Academy and a proposed school in Tampa, FL; rebuilding neighborhoods in Binghamton, NY, and Tampa; and a generic process for group-building that avoids the “tragedy of the commons,” based on the Nobel-winning work of Elinor Ostrom. Of course, there are a lot of people who would never read an academic paper (or even a wonky non-fiction book), partly because they don't trust a bunch of academics to report their data honestly or to interpret it correctly. A novel about a researcher or activist struggling with the design and implementation of a project would have a whole different feel to it, and would reach a whole different audience.

RCTs for Public Policy

Experiments are still a controversial topic in political science. The gold standard for medical research is the randomly controlled trial (RCT), which avoids the problem of selection bias, which ruins a lot of studies. The RCT is the model for the potential study of mandatory voting I mentioned above. This method is barely used in public policy for a variety of reasons, addressed one after the other in this report. However, a group at Michigan State has built a database of trials around the world that could be inspirational for SF writers.

Of course, I'm not asking for SF writers to actually do real-life experiments, like Jack Lemmon's cartoonist character, Stanley Ford, running around New York City figuring out body-disposal techniques in How to Murder Your Wife, or Woody Wilkins building a winged flight suit in Condorman. If the Mythbusters are any indication, it could be a hell of a lot of fun, though.

I think the most important contribution SF could make is to model an attitude. As Jonathan Breckon says here in the context of British politics:

But it’s not just the politicians who are to blame. We as voters unrealistically demand perfect 20:20 policy vision from our political masters. Government is not allowed to fail, or do U-turns, or to test out new ideas. This makes it hard for adjustments, reversals and tweaks. When the dust has settled after the election, we would all do well to have a bit of humility. Allow those in power to try new things out, and not destroy with media vitriol if their best laid plans fail, as long as they learn and move on to make the best public services, to benefit us all.

What if SF writers could get a little meta? Rather than defending our particular ideologies, what if we took a chill pill and presented cultures that experiment their way to the future? Cory Doctorow makes a big deal about the experimental culture among the techno-anarchist Maker collectives in his upcoming novel Walkaway (which I pre-reviewed here), though his metaphor is A/B testing from software development rather than the randomly controlled trial method from medicine that I’m personally more familiar with. A/B testing definitely is in use in political campaigns, but only for getting elected. The actual business of governing is apparently not as important.

Or go even a little further. Take a page from role-playing games, where it's standard practice for a game master to roll a die to determine the weather, or the duration of an event, or the player group's next encounter. Roll a die to see what happens in your next story. Or roll two dice, write both, and submit them to two different review groups. See what happens.

Randall Hayes has been, over the past three years, a Dwarf Locksmith, a Goblin Illusionist, and a female Monk. It never occurred to him to play them in random rotation. When he isn't dungeoneering in the world of Arden Vul, he blogs at Steemit.com and runs his own education company, Agnosia Media, LLC.












Detractors also use a lot of logical “woulds” and not a lot of experiments, which makes them a form of SF, as much as anything.













See? I didn’t read it, either.


“Think Jared Diamond meets Hunter S. Thompson and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (who makes an extended cameo). Even for the intellectually adventurous reader, it is a scenic route, with mind-bending digressions that make the main thread hard to follow.”

You say that like it’s a bad thing…




Common myths about Randomized Controlled Trials. This report also recommends that all organizations spend at least 2% of their budgets on RCTs of their programs.


Real difficulties of doing RCTs in schools.










Beautiful AND functional!





I ran out of room before I could rant about these. Oh, well. Another time.

Read more by Randall Hayes

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